On Jan. 31, 1865, the U.S. Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing involuntary servitude (slavery) everywhere in the United States. 

The measure passed by a mere two votes more than the necessary two-thirds margin. Nevertheless, rejoicing broke out in Congress, this despite the fact that the proposed amendment still had to be ratified by three quarters of the states. That would not happen until December.   

Bottom line, and a point often overlooked: Congressional passage and state ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment was by no means certain.

So why do I bring this subject up now? Because on Feb. 20, you will have a chance to hear “the rest of the story.”

For its 19th annual Lincoln Lecture, the University of Saint Mary is pleased to present Michael Vorenberg, Harvard Ph.D., Brown University professor of American History and leading expert on the Thirteenth Amendment. 

In a talk titled “Lincoln, the Thirteenth Amendment, and the Struggle for American Peace and Freedom,” Vorenberg will explore key moments in the passage of the amendment and the activities in the last months of Lincoln’s presidency to ensure its ratification and the permanence of freedom for African Americans.

Vorenberg’s book, “Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment,” was a finalist for the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize. More recently he authored an essay on the topic “The Thirteenth Amendment Enacted,” edited by Harold Holzer and Sara Vaughn Gabbard.

But perhaps more interesting for readers, Vorenberg’s work was a source of information for Steven Spielberg in his 2012 production of the award-winning historical drama “Lincoln.” 

The film captured the brilliant maneuvering of the 16th president to get the proposed amendment through Congress. Yes Lincoln, who we often see as a president who rose above politics, was an astute politician, and he did not shy away from using those skills.

What the film did not show, and what Vorenberg will address, is what Lincoln did after the measure went to the states to get it ratified. Lincoln did not live long enough to witness the ratification, but the role he played in that process was critical.

Unfortunately, neither did Lincoln live long enough to implement his plan for peace. Although it will never be known, his plan might have changed the course of history in the Civil War’s aftermath. 

Vorenberg will speak at 7 p.m. Feb. 20 (Presidents Day) in Xavier Theatre on the third floor of Xavier Hall on the USM campus. The talk is free and open to the public.

A reception will follow the talk at which attendees will have a chance to view pieces from the Bernard Hall Lincoln Collection gifted to the university nearly 50 years ago, including its original copy of the Thirteenth Amendment.   

Bryan Le Beau is an historian, provost, and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Saint Mary.